It's hard to know whether Chrysler's gamble of building an unashamedly old-fashioned, American-style sedan-big inside and out, rear-wheel drive, with the option of a honking V-8-will get buyers flocking into its showrooms, but the 300 is pretty sweet. Driving around Palm Springs in a 300C equipped with the bodacious 5.7-liter Hemi V-8 seemed appropriate, because this artificial oasis a couple of hours east of Los Angeles, with its endless golf courses and stylish mid-century architecture, reflects more of the optimism of the immediate postwar era than almost any other place in the United States. From the high-set driving position to the rumble of the V-8, the 300C is a throwback to the time when big was better, bigger was best, and no one had heard of Toyota.
American cars used to look distinctive, drive distinctively, and offer more for less. Sometime between the late 1960s and now, the ineptness (and arrogance) of the domestic auto industry, an oil crisis that was manna to import automakers, and changing consumer tastes led the major domestic automakers to build ersatz import cars rather than American ones.
The 300, though, actually looks like an American car. At 196.8 inches long and 74.1 inches wide, it's large enough to make the Mercedes-Benz E500 we brought along for comparative purposes seem like a waif. The 300 looks very distinctive on the road, glamorous even, with its baby Bentley proportions, lead-sled chop top, and showy details. If there's any American car that's going to appeal to the rap pack, this is it. In fact, 50 Cent already has shot a video with a 300C, tricked out with the 22-inch wheels that seem to be a prerequisite for hip-hop acceptability.
The confident exterior is matched by a stylish interior. Chrysler has made a quantum improvement in the quality of the bits you touch, even if they aren't always up to Lexus standards. In many cases, the materials are better than those used by the Japanese competition, with soft-touch surfaces as opposed to hard plastics, for instance. The design is very attractive, with great-looking gauges and chrome accents everywhere, and the tortoiseshell finish on the C's steering wheel, shifter, and door handles is delightful. Just like the outside, the interior is massive-similar in size to the BMW 745i, believe it or not. Headroom, shoulder room, and legroom are not only superior to mid-size cars' but are comparable to those of short-wheelbase luxury cars such as the Jaguar XJ8 and the Infiniti Q45.
When it comes to trim, the base 300 ($23,595) has cloth upholstery, a power driver's seat, and a tilt/telescoping steering wheel; leather is standard on the 300 Touring ($27,395). The 300 Limited ($29,890) adds heated seats, a power passenger seat, dual-zone climate control, and one-touch front windows. The 300C ($32,995) gets a power tilt/ telescoping steering wheel, rain-sensing wipers, and a 288-watt stereo as standard. Options include a navigation system, power-adjustable pedals, xenon headlamps, a 380-watt sound system, and a power sunroof.
The big news for people who enjoy driving is that the 300 is rear- (or all-) wheel drive. Chrysler has spent years telling people about the traction advantages of its front-wheel-drive cars, but now the company has reversed course and is spinning the virtues of traction and stability control systems like crazy. (Traction control and ESP are optional on the base 300 and standard on the other models.)